The Perils of Being Married to a Writer

The Perils of Being Married to a Writer
Arnie at the helm, the day before the capsize

Arnie at the helm, the day before his misadventure

Last week my husband and I took a four-day vacation at a rustic but absolutely magnificent hideaway in Algonquin Park. One of the best things about Arowhon Pines (aside from the food) is that there is no internet access, no mobile access, no television. You can use the overpriced payphone if you must. If there’s an emergency at home and someone needs to reach you, they can call the desk and staff will come and get you. And at 9:30 each evening if you are desperate for digital entertainment, you can go to the recreation hall to watch a movie on DVD. Aside from that, you’re on your own with the trees and the stars and the lake.

Needless to say, this is a perfect place to be a writer, because you can’t get onto Facebook. If you’re on your computer, there is nothing to do but reorganize your files, see what books you remembered to download before you left the city, and then get to work.

Not that you actually have to open your computer. You can go canoeing, swimming, hiking or kayaking instead. You can sit on the dock, look out at the lake (where no motorboats are allowed), enjoy the quiet or listen for a loon, try to catch sight of a moose, a bear, a fox, or a great blue heron. You can write in your journal. You can take a nap. You can read a book (apparently some people call Arowhon Pines “Camp Library” because everyone is either carrying a book or reading one.). You can sit by a campfire, sing and roast marshmallows.

Aside from catching sight of moose or bear (thank god), we did all of the above.

If you’re a writer, a place like that makes you feel like writing. It doesn’t have to be Arowhon Pines, of course. It’s the remoteness, the quiet, the space – mental, physical, emotional – that makes you feel like writing. So after lunch one day, I told Arnie that I was going to sit on the covered dining hall verandah that overlooks the lake, and work on my new novel. He said he was going to take one the two small Hobies out for a sail: he’d done that the afternoon before, and he’d enjoyed it. Today the lake was a bit rougher and it looked like rain, and I told him to be careful. “I’m too young to be a widow,” I said, giving him a kiss goodbye. I assured him I’d keep my eye on him.

And for a while, I did. I settled myself in one of the Algonquin chairs on the verandah, where I had a view of the dock and about half of the lake, my feet up on the middle rail so I could rest my laptop on my thighs, and I opened my computer. I watched as Arnie prepared the boat and himself for his excursion, then waited for a sudden downpour to pass by and the sun to come out again. I watched him unfurl the sail (there’s only one on those little boats. No jib) and start out toward the middle of the lake. Then I got to work.

Occasionally I looked up to see where Arnie was, but the third time I looked up, I could no longer see him. I wasn’t concerned. I could see only half the lake and I was sure he’d simply sailed out of my view. He’d gone all the way across the little lake and back the day before, without incident. I got back to work. Soon I was utterly lost in what I was writing, and almost unable to tear my eyes away from the screen….

Some time later, my concentration was disturbed by the sound of a motor boat setting out onto the lake. This I found curious, as there is only one motorized boat at the lodge – a pontoon boat – and it is only rarely used. I looked out at the lake again. Nothing to see there. I was settling into work again when I heard a person farther down the verandah say to another person, “I think someone’s in trouble in a sailboat, and they’re going out to help.”

I felt my heart begin to pound as I looked up and out at the lake again. Sure enough, there was the pontoon, chugging in the direction of something and someone that I, on the verandah, could not see. But I knew what and who it was.

I closed my computer, gathered up my notes, and headed down to the dock to await the arrival of the rescue vessel, now heading back to shore with the sailboat – my husband once more securely seated in it – in tow. I was glad he was wearing his personal flotation device. I noticed that his (Tilley) hat was gone. I was incredibly happy to watch his slow return to shore.

There were several people sitting in lounge chairs on the dock, two of whom were women of about my own age, facing out toward the lake.

“That’s my husband,” I told them, nodding in his direction, hoping they didn’t notice that even my voice was shaky.

“I saw him go over,” one of them said. “He righted the boat, and then it tipped again.”

The other woman nodded.

“After I few minutes we decided we’d better raise an alarm. So I went up to the reception desk and told them, and they sent out the pontoon boat.”

During all of this time, I’d been buried in my novel.

I didn’t mention that.

“Thank you for saving my husband,” I said as Arnie, having let go of the pontoon’s tow rope, paddled the sailboat up against the dock. The pontoon boat motored off, back to its mooring on the far side of the dining hall.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“I’m fine,” he said.

After he’d  tied up the Hobie and climbed back onto the dock beside me he said, “These little boats without a jib are impossible to bring about. I got caught by a gust, and when the boat went over, the sail went straight down into the lake. There was no centreboard to climb onto, so righting it the first time wore me out. When I went over again, I just hung on and waited. I knew someone would notice, and they’d send the boat.”

“Fortunately, someone noticed,” I said, indicating the women behind me.

Still holding my laptop and my papers in one arm, I grabbed a strap of Arnie’s safety vest and held on tight with my free hand as we walked off the dock together.

In future, if Arnie insists we take two other women with us every time we head for the wilderness, at least I’ll know the reason why.

___________

Mary W. Walters is the author of Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, among several other books.

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Wattpad: Engaging Readers as You Write

Note: This article previously appeared in a slightly different form in Write, The Magazine of The Writers Union of Canada

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Confession: Sometimes I have trouble writing the next page of my new novel. WPNot because I am short of ideas, but because I have a lot of other urgent matters that demand my attention. I have often envied the writers whose editors or literary agents I imagine standing at their sides like midwives, encouraging them throughout their labour, reminding them of the rewards of manuscript delivery, telling them how much the world wants to see their next baby, and finally urging them to “push.”

When I heard about Wattpad, an Internet platform for readers and writers that attracts 27 million unique visitors per month, and 200,000 uploads of writing per day, I thought it might be part of the answer to my problem. And it has been. But it is also other things.

What It Is

Wattpad is a social storytelling platform where writers can register to post all kinds of work – poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction – and where readers can read that work: all at no charge.

Most writers post short segments of their works in progress (1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, sometimes much less, sometimes much more), adding to it at regular (or irregular) intervals. Some writers are posting whole manuscripts in serial format that they have previously completed. Others (like me) are posting early drafts of longer works one section at a time. Still others slap up writing fragments like ill-mixed paint with hairs in it, and leave it there to dry — perhaps intending to come back and edit later, perhaps not.

Once the piece is up there, the effort to attract readers begins. You can contribute to this process (but probably only once) by emailing all of your friends and inviting them to check your story out, and by posting your Wattpad link to other social media sites (here’s mine). Of course, you also want to encourage visitors to your page whom you don’t already know, and you can do this indirectly by reading and commenting on the writing of others on the site, getting involved in the discussion forums, and entering the informal competitions Wattpad puts on from time to time. The goal is to get people to “follow” you so that they will be notified whenever you post a new installment or an update.

Every time someone takes a look at a segment you have posted, your “read” counter goes up. Readers can also vote for or post a comment on your work. The more reads and votes you get, the greater are your chances of being noticed by even more readers.

Some people use Wattpad as an end in itself – they are not interested in publishing elsewhere. Others are creating works ultimately intended for self- or traditional publication. Many writers have several projects on the go. Some ask for input and guidance from their readers; others just write.

Who’s on Wattpad?

The two Canadians who developed Wattpad (Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen) intended it for readers as much as writers, and Ashleigh Gardner, Head of Content: Publishing, says that “Ninety percent of Wattpad visitors are there to read and comment, not to post stories.”

She also says that regular visitors include publishers and agents who are looking for new talent.

“Some writers use Wattpad to promote their books to publishers,” she says. “Perhaps their novel was rejected when they submitted it directly, but now they can demonstrate that there is significant interest in their work.”

Gardner also tells me that the Wattpad app for smartphones and tablets is downloaded about 400,000 times a day. “Eighty-five percent of our visitors now reach us from mobile devices,” she says.

The advantage of Wattpad’s mobility component is clear: your work is accessible to readers no matter where they are, and your followers will receive “push” notifications whenever you post something new.

Copyright and Other Concerns

Gardner says that the site features a very sophisticated data-checking system that not only protects what is posted, but also works to prevent piracy. “All work on Wattpad of course remains copyright to the author,” she says. “Further, it cannot be copied and pasted, and readers can’t download it.”

A few people have told me they’re reluctant to sign on to Wattpad because they fear it will lead to spam, but so far Wattpad has attracted no more spam to me than have Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads or Facebook (which is, in my case, none).

Wattpad has had a reputation for being a place where teens post stories for one another, but if that were true at one point (and wouldn’t it be great to know that there are millions of teens who are interested in writing and reading?), the demographics are changing. “The majority of visitors are now between the ages of 18 and 30,” Gardner says, “and the subject matter of the content is changing as the average age goes up.”

Making Wattpad Work

The important part of making Wattpad work for you is to remember that it is a social media platform. If you don’t engage with it (read others’ works, respond to comments, participate in forum discussions), you will miss out on the very important reciprocation factor, and your work will languish. Further, thanks to algorithms, the more readers you attract, the more readers who will find you on their own.

Networking is not as painful as you might think. While it’s true that the Wattpad platform sports lots of dabblers and thousands of very bad writers, it doesn’t take long to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there are also some very good writers there, clearly intending to do as I am — get the work written and noticed by intelligent and discerning readers.

I’ve found a few manuscripts on Wattpad whose next installments I am genuinely eager to read and I’ve also found a few very careful and helpful readers who will probably help me get through Seeds and Secrets far more quickly than I would ever have done on my own. There is a definite motivation to keep going when readers start asking when you’re going to post the next installment. (As of Jan 1, 2015, Seeds and Secrets had received 1,500 “reads” and 121 votes. It stands about 450 from the top in the General Fiction category.)

In addition to pieces of my novel, I’ve put up a couple of works of short nonfiction on Wattpad – one previously published, one not yet – and received encouraging – and immediate – responses on them as well. I am also posting blog posts from my 2011 solo trip to India – Watch. Listen. Learn – which seems to be very popular. In fact, the response is making me seriously consider publishing it as a book, which I had not considered doing before.)

For me, Wattpad is like a humungous writing group where no one has to make coffee or serve beer, get dressed before offering feedback on other writers’ works, or pay any attention to comments from readers who don’t get what they’re doing.

Wattpad is not for everyone, of course, but if it sounds like a tool you could use to stimulate your writing and find new readers for your existing work, check it out. I’ll be happy to read the writing that you post – as long as you read mine. :)

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Update: You can check out Wattpad’s 2014 Year in Review here. According to Nazia Khan, Wattpad’s Director of Communications, the company has noted some interesting trends this year:

  • People are writing novels on their phones
  • Episodic/serial reading is back (Dickens would be so pleased)
  • Everyone is a fan of something as evidenced by the growing number of fanfiction stories
  • Teens are reading. Yes, really.

Turning Writers’ Blocks into Building Blocks, or “What don’t I know?”

 

blocks__4971835856There is no worse feeling for a fiction writer than coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a story. One day all of your engines are firing, sentence after sentence pours out of you like hot metal, almost faster than you can type – it’s like the characters are alive inside your head and all you need to do is write down what they’re doing. You love the story you are writing and you know that everyone else in the entire world is going to love it, too. You are thinking that at the rate you are going, you’ll be finished by the new year, and rich and famous by next summer (or at least critically acclaimed within the decade).

And then the next day, the magic vanishes. You sit down at your computer as you always do, you start to key in words — but these words don’t fit with the words you wrote yesterday, nor do they even fit with each other very well. So you delete them. You try another sentence. Nope. Nothing good is happening on the screen. You tell yourself that you should ease up on yourself: this isn’t the final draft, it’s just the first one. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But still it isn’t working.

You get up and pace. You lie on your back on your bed or on the floor, and you start feeling nauseated. You go back to the computer, but you find yourself checking Facebook instead of writing. You read the news. You play an online game. Only at the end of the day, do you give up — hoping that tomorrow will return you to your state of authorial grace.

But tomorrow, it’s the same or worse. So you start reading back through what you wrote before you hit the wall — and, horror of horrors — you wonder if that part is any good either.

One day you reach a point where you can’t even bring yourself to open the file where you have saved your story.

What to do?

Some writing gurus will tell you to just keep going. They’ll tell you not to worry about whether what you’re putting down is good or bad… they’ll insist you must simply carry on. “Keep getting your daily quota down on paper,” they say, “and it will all work out.” They will cheerily suggest that you stop the day’s work in the middle of a paragraph so that you can carry on tomorrow … as if you could even write half a paragraph today.

Well, I’ve tried following that advice. As a result, I have printouts of several drafts of a novel called White Work in a box somewhere that, taken together, weigh about 20 lbs. White Work will never be complete because I kept going as advised, and never did find my way out of the mess I was making of it. Everything I did just made it worse. I grew sick and tired of it. Twenty years later, I still can’t look at it.

On other occasions when I’ve hit a wall, I’ve put the project aside, afraid of wrecking it. I’ve decided to wait until inspiration returned. Eventually a couple of those projects went into the fireplace or into my filing cabinet or still languish on my computer, unfinished. When I look at them I have no idea where I was going with them, what made me so keen about them in the first place.

In other words, if you don’t deal with them when they first show up, little blocks can grow into big problems.

Meeting the Block Head-on

I have finally found a solution that works for me when I run into a block, and I hope it works for you as well. It’s not really a solution, I suppose: it’s more of an awareness that you can turn into plan of action.

I have learned that when I find it impossible to move forward on a project, it is because there is something important about the story that I do not know.
Not knowing something erodes my confidence, and when I lack confidence I can’t write. Trying to move forward becomes like trying to walk across a frozen pond when I am not sure whether the ice is solid enough to hold me. My fear of seeing the ice begin to crack, of sinking into the deadly water — of getting trapped beneath the ice — becomes greater than my certainty that I can make it to the other side. I start to slow down, and then I stop. And that’s when I start sinking.

So now, when I find myself grinding to a halt in the middle of a story – as I did recently in my new novel, Seeds and Secrets (which you can watch me writing on Wattpad, one chapter at time, if you are interested) – I ask myself, “What do I not know about this story and its characters that I need to know before I can move on?” (There are lots of things I don’t need to know. I’m not talking about those things.)

“Where have I taken a wrong step?” I ask myself. “How did I get myself out here where the ice is so thin? When is the last time I felt myself on solid ground, and how do I get back there so I can once again move forward strongly?”

Kinds of Missing Information

What I don’t know about my story might be something small. For example, maybe the daughter of my main character was traumatized by the 9-11 coverage, but I’ve just realized that she could not have been traumatized by that event because she wasn’t even born when it occurred. Now I need to change everybody’s age in the whole story, or find the child another trauma.

Or maybe it’s a medium-sized problem. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time thinking about my main character’s best friend. I don’t know why she has turned into such a bitter adult. I realize that I need to spend some time thinking about what led her to become the woman she is now. (I may not actually include this information in my novel, but it’s clear to me that I do need to know it before I can move on.)

Or it might be a really big problem, which is, in my case, what almost always happens when I don’t know how a story is going to turn out. Some writers just keep on writing with no real plot in mind, hoping for the best, and some of those writers get lucky. (Or maybe, as in the case of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard, they just keep writing, and writing, and writing, until they stop.) But most authors, like me, need to know the ending before they can write the middle, or they will come to a grinding halt. (That’s what happened with White Work).

In order overcome a block and move on, sometimes I just need to go back a bit and fix something to make the story feel right again, as in the case of the trauma incident. Sometimes I need to draw a map or a floor plan or a family tree to make sure I’ve got my directions and dates and connections right. And sometimes I have a bigger job ahead of me: I need to figure out and then make notes on the balance of the plot, so I can see where I am going. (In Seeds and Secrets, my most recent problem turned out to be minor: I realized that I had no idea what career my central character had taken up as her employment as an adult: i.e., in the novel’s present tense. I had to decide what career path she’d chosen and how that path logically arose from what had happened to her when she was younger.)

To find missing information in my novel, the last place I want to look is at the novel itself. (That’s where the information is missing from, so why would I look for it there?) Instead, I often find it useful to go for a walk or head to the gym. For some reason, if I deliberately force myself to think about the problem while I’m sweating, the answer usually comes to me. Other times, I take my computer to a coffee shop or a park where I try to shake the solution loose — in my experience, a change of setting is much more likely to create a missing piece than is lying on the bed, staring in panic at the ceiling.

Once I’ve figured out what I don’t know about my novel, and have filled in the necessary cracks in what I’ve already written, I find that the ground again feels solid, and I am able to move forward. The book itself feels better — stronger — when I’ve done this. It’s sort of like turning writers’ blocks into construction materials. And when you know how to do that, you almost start to welcome those blocks when they start to crash down in front of you and bring you to a halt. (Almost.) You realize that if you don’t fix the problem, you are going to sink for sure. But you also begin to trust that you can fix it, given some time and focus, and that when you have –  when you’ve made the ground strong enough again to hold you – the readers who follow after will find it strong as well.

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photo credit: turbulentflow via photopin cc

Is “dictating” a story the same as “writing” a story?

Businessman dictating notesIf you record a short story and then transcribe it, did you write a short story?

In my editing life and in my online reading, more and more frequently I am coming across passages of creative writing — both fiction and non-fiction — that “sound” to me as though they have been dictated into digital voice recorders, transcribed (which the apps do for you, in part), and then edited (often minimally) before being released into the world.

Why do I get the sense that some creative prose I’m reading started in an oral format? In part it is the phrasing and vernacular, but particularly it is the way the material unfolds. When we speak, most of us tend to go in circles: repeating ourselves and coming at the same topic from different directions until we get the approach that suits us (and our content) best. Our thoughts are frequently unfinished because we forget what we’ve just said. With writing, we edit out half-formed attempts to say it properly, and only leave the most effective statements. Then we might fiddle with the wording a little or a lot before we move on to the next sentence. Or at least that’s how I do it. I think that when we are working on the page, we take more time to think about what we are saying before we put it down, much less before we put it out there.


Update: My new WattPad friend Maximilian Frick tells me:

“Here’s a great quote from James Joyce that you may or may not know: when informed by an interviewer that some of his contemporaries considered two books a year an average output, Joyce replied: ‘Yes, but how do they do it? They talk them into a typewriter. I feel quite capable of doing that if I wanted to do it. But what’s the use? It isn’t worth doing’.”


Half-finished thoughts, repetitions and other markers have made me suspicious that (for example), at least some of the hundreds of thousands of people (many in their teens) who are posting novels and short fiction on WattPad (and even releasing them as books on Amazon) are not actually “writing” them, as I think of writing. “Writing” to me means creating on a page. It is a different process than speaking thoughts into a recording device.

Please note that I have a friend who is blind who is writing a book by dictating it. (Go, George!) That is a different issue: he is writing in the only way he can, and I believe he approaches his recorded writing as I do the page — i.e. not in haste. But maybe he (and the guy who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) are some exceptions that prove the rule.

Also, I know that some people write “free fall” — as the thoughts occur to them — not erasing but continuing to write, as Natalie Goldberg suggests doing in Writing Down the Bones, but I would argue that stream-of-consciousness writing is different from stream-of-consciousness speaking, and furthermore that most of it isn’t publishable. Some people might say that they take a long time to consider before they put a sentence into a recorder, and that what I am really arguing against is stream-of-consciousness prosemaking, period. Maybe so.

The question is, does writing on a page and then editing the result lead to a different outcome than talking into a recorder and then transcribing and editing the result? I believe it does.

Does one approach lead to greater literary quality than another? I don’t know. But I think creative writing should be written. Unless you are physically incapable of it.

I remember reading that Barbara Cartland dictated all of her novels, but I don’t call what she did “creative writing.”

Maybe I’m just a snob. And old-fashioned. Maybe the new electronic era means that I should just get with the program. Maybe when young people today say they want to grow up to be writers, they are not necessarily thinking of confronting a blank page (in any form) ever.

I may change my thinking, as I often do, but for now at least, I don’t think that dictating and writing are the same thing. Do you?

Let me know your thoughts — in the poll, the comments section below, or both.

I might write an article about this. (Maybe I just have. Maybe I should attempt to dictate the next one. Maybe articles CAN be dictated. Oh, life is so confusing.)

 

Promoting your Book on Facebook and Twitter is a Total Waste of Time

"Facebook author pages (like this one of mine) are a waste of time" Mary W. WaltersWorse, it’s probably turning off many of your on-line friends.

After being told for several years by every guru in the business (most of them styled as “social media experts”) that as a writer I must focus my attention on self-promotion through social media, I now consider myself to have become a social media expert myself — at least when it comes to matters writerly.

And I am telling you that those other social-media experts (and the publishers that parrot them) are full of crap. When it comes to book promotion, your time is far better spent on other kinds of marketing activities, or even in writing your next novel, than it is being anywhere on social media.

For about five years I have read books, blog posts, articles and tweets on the subject of book marketing and networking, and I have Facebooked and Tweeted and LinkedIned until my smile, my whistle and my chains have been rattling and ready to fall off.  I have examined the situation closely, tracking who comes to my web pages and blogs from where, and who buys my books and when – and what happens to the buzz about other people’s books on social media sites.

And here’s the bottom line, my fellow writers: nobody goes on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn (or Tumblr or Reddit or even an Amazon forum) to read about your book or mine. They are especially uninterested in our novels. They might possibly be interested in a non-fiction book if they think that what it contains is going to help them somehow (change a tire or make a million dollars or find inner peace), but the creative stuff . . . ? Forget it.

I have only to look within myself to see what should have been obvious five years ago. I’m a writer and an inveterate reader and I never go on those sites to read about new books – in fact, I try to tune out social media messages that have anything to do with books. Such messages are usually boring, and they make me feel guilty because I know I’m wasting my time there, and that I should be working.

There are good reasons why Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are a waste of time for novelists and other creative writers and if anyone had been using their brains they would have figured them out a long time ago. Here they are:

  • Rarely if ever since Gutenberg has anyone ever wanted to read a book because the author said he or she should read it.  (Most of us have also never been interested in reading a book just because the publisher told us to read it.) Social media do not alter that reality at all. What readers want to read are books that other people – independent people, whom we respect – tell us we’ll enjoy, not what the books’ authors insist we will enjoy;
  • Most book-reading folk (i.e., intelligent people) aren’t interested in advertising and promotional copy, or in watching writers pat themselves on the backs for winning awards or getting great reviews. They are interested in discussions and opinions about books. They are interested in two-way exchanges about literary matters – not in one-way communications.

Any Facebook group that is related to writing is as much of a waste of time when it comes to book promotion as is the rest of the site. Most writers don’t buy books from other writers, and those groups are choirs, to which we, their members, sing. Furthermore, Facebook “Pages” devoted to fiction writers don’t seem to do much good. (On a related note of abject honesty: if you are a writer with a blog about your writing, I am probably never ever going to read it. I barely read my own.)

So if you’re not appealing to me, and I’m not appealing to you (in a way that puts me in mind to buy your book, I mean: you do, of course, appeal to me in every other way), and both of us are writers and readers, what the hell are we doing on Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter?

Well, we are not working on “self-promotion” as we like to think we are, and as our publishers tell us we are (they really believe it’s true. That’s how much most publishers know about book promotion).  What we are doing over there is wasting time – just like everyone else. I like to think of Facebook as the equivalent of the office water cooler, since writing and editing are such solitary activities, and so in a way my visiting there is healthy. I am not arguing with the “social” aspect of social media. In fact, I love it. Too much, most days. :)

Also, in my opinion (which is rarely humble, as regular readers will know), if all we are doing on Facebook is  self-promoting — which is what quite a few writers do – and we are never interesting or funny, we are not only not attracting readers, we are turning them away. I have hidden the posts of several widely published, bigshot authors who are my Facebook “friends” from my F/B news feed because I can’t stand listening to their self-congratulation any more. (As they may well have done with mine!)

And as far as Twitter and LinkedIn? The utter lack of interest in novels or writing-related posts on those sites is deafening. In reality, social-media interest in novelists is restricted to only the really major players. The Rowlings, Gaimans, Atwoods and Rushdies may attract attention for what they have to say (which is, please note, not normally related to their books), but nobody gives a damn what the rest of us think, about anything.

When I’m on social media sites, I tune out almost everything that has to do with books (aside from industry news and such lovely pages as the one maintained by the Paris Review), and if I am ever looking for a new book to buy or read, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Reddit are the last places in the universe I would ever think to go to find out what I might enjoy. (Maybe GoodReads, but maybe not even there. More likely a book reviewing site or a magazine or news publication.) The reason I’m on Facebook is not to locate reading material: I’m there to look at memes, make smart-ass jokes that nobody gets, diss members of the government, read some juicy gossip, find out how my friends are doing, and complain about the phone company. That’s why you’re there too: admit it.

The take-away from this? As writers, we should focus our promotional efforts on trying to get people to talk about our books (review them, read and recommend them, give them awards, take them to their book groups, write articles or blog posts about them) instead of trying to get people to buy them.

Writers and Violence: Our obligation to at least wonder if there’s anything we can do

I have written the first draft of the article describing the publishing panel at the LitFest in Anguilla last weekend, an event that seems somewhat seminal to me – situated as it was amid the mudslide of turmoil that surrounds the impact of electronic technology on our industry. So it is taking me a while to write that post. But today did not seem like the right day to be polishing sentences. After several days of relative isolation from the news online, and the shock of coming back to it, I felt I needed to stop and think about the bigger picture for a moment.

Today in Seattle, a gunman killed five people and himself. Here in Toronto, a young man shot another at a subway station after an altercation on the train. These are just two senseless incidents of violence out of thousands I could report from today’s headlines alone that have not only affected the hearts and minds of those immediately concerned, but aroused the horror of bystanders and online readers and viewers everywhere.

A few days ago, a drugged-up man in Miami ate the face off another man, and was shot to death by police on camera. A man in Montreal killed another man, chopped him up, put his torso in a suitcase and a few of his other body parts in packages and mailed them to innocent recipients: the murder scene is now open for public viewing. A couple in England has been charged with setting fire to their home and killing their six children. A young woman in Sudan is about to be stoned to death for adultery.

It makes me wonder if there is any justification at all for sitting around and writing stories. We should be doing something more constructive. Jackie Chan is starting to look like the only sane person in the news.

On the other hand, the eminent and distinguished speakers at the conference last weekend seemed to be fairly unanimous that it is the loss of story/heritage that leads to a lot of this insanity, drug abuse, and senseless violence. We must give people back their voices, and we must tell our stories. This new publishing era is certainly facilitating that.

But I think at the very least the endless endless horrific headlines should make us, as writers, think about our ethical responsibility to push away the chaos, instead of adding to it.

Along with talent, growing expertise at writing, the universal ability to publish whatever we want to say, and our increasingly fevered and competitive efforts to reach (i.e., capture) audiences, comes responsibility. That’s all I’m saying here.

* * * * *

June 6, 2012: Adding a link to PEN International, and one to Amnesty International. We can at least write letters.

Mary’s Writing and Publishing Browsery for June 14 2011

Here is an (annotated, of course: I rarely keep my opinions to myself) accumulation of interesting items about writing and publishing that I’ve come across (or been referred to by others) in the past few weeks:

  • For the inside track on the appalling impact of previous sales figures on book-publishing decisions, check out Steven Henighan’s amazing article “The BookNet Dictatorship” in Geist. If you’re a mid-list writer who can’t get an agent or publisher to read your manuscript, maybe this is why. And this happens everywhere – in the UK and US, for example, as well as in Canada;
  • In this YouTube video, Margaret Atwood displays her drawing talents in a presentation to the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in New York in February. I love her “Change Isn’t Good For Everyone” slide in particular (it is so Atwoodesque), but I think the half-empty glass she sees may also be viewed as half full it. Many of the problems she raises re: technology and books are caused by publishers, not by technology, and imho the structure that links writers (and editors!) inextricably with publishers and agents is already outdated. The United Artists model she suggests is relevant, and many groups of “indie-minded” writers are now banding together to apply that model to books;
  • Unbound is an independent publishing initiative where interested readers can pledge financial support to bring a writer’s work to press, helping to support the writing process of specific books in exchange for rewards such as lunch with the author and a mention in the acknowledgements (Kickstarter is a similar initiative that encompasses the range of creative projects.);
  • An item in Business Insider, “This 26-Year-Old Is Making Millions Cutting Out Traditional Publishers With Amazon Kindle,” profiles Amanda Hocking, the young author who is fulfilling the wildest dreams of legions of self-published writers by selling hundreds of thousands of her books and keeping 70% of the profits;
  • Another Business Insider article, “Suddenly, Amazon Starts Competing With Its Biggest Suppliers,” introduces Amazon’s latest initiative: its own publishing division. As fellow Writers Union member Art Slade pointed out, perhaps this will encourage other publishers to pay their authors more of (their own) money on electronic books. Otherwise, to me—an author who is looking with interest at the stripped-down model of getting good books to readers in which publishers are superfluous—this move by Amazon makes no sense.  Why not add an editing imprint, rather than a publishing imprint??
  • Finally, to mid-list author Neal Pollack’s article in the New York Times, “The Case for Self-Publishing,” I can only say “amen.”

For those who are not familiar with The Militant Writer blog, I direct your attention to two of my own recent articles: “As Publishers, Agents and Booksellers (unfortunately) (for them) Go The Way of the Dodo, Writers Learn To Fly” and “The Author as Publisher.” More articles in this series will follow as I have time to write them.

In the meantime, I encourage you to let me know if you see items on book publishing and writing that might be of interest for future Browsery columns. You can email me at marywwalters at marywwalters.com

Thanks for leads to the articles in this edition of The Browsery from Larry Anderson, Dwight Okita, Gerry Riskin, Marion Stein and a panelist at a Writers Union forum whose name eludes me.